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SocietySeptember 19, 2020

Everyone says you should ask for help. But what happens once you do?

man sitting in waiting room with head in hands
Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Marra has been trying to get help for his mental health problems for two years. It shouldn’t take hitting absolute rock bottom for him to receive it.

Content warning: This story contains discussion of mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. 

Every time mental health is back in the news it comes with the same list of helplines, and the same pleas from friends to those who are struggling to ask for help. But what happens once you ask for help? You would think the response to someone asking for help would be to give them help, but in my experience, that is rarely the case.

I have been asking for help for over two years. In mid 2018 I was working four part-time jobs and burning out, so I asked my GP if there were any counselling services available. He gave me a piece of paper with a list of low-cost options. I looked over the list, crossed out all the services I didn’t meet the criteria for, and contacted one of the remaining ones. They told me they were not accepting new clients. At that stage I felt like finding a counsellor would just be another job to add to my already significant workload, so I gave up looking.

Later that year I had another, more significant, breakdown sparked by some bad health news. I was referred to a specialist organisation where I had an initial assessment but did not meet the threshold for their services. I was then given a session with a counsellor at my doctor’s office, who said she would help me find a long-term counsellor. Later she contacted me saying I wasn’t eligible for any of the services she looked into, but would continue to see me herself. A week later she contacted me again and said I was also not eligible for her services.

After I was rejected from all other options, I started seeing a trainee GP every week for an hour. I felt safe and looked after by him, but he was not a therapist. This lasted about six weeks before he had to move to his next placement.

Throughout this time I was compulsively exercising, spending three or four hours each day cycling, running, walking, or at the gym. This helped a lot but also disrupted my ability to do anything else with my life. If I didn’t meet my daily exercise targets I would end up having a panic attack. I took a few months off work and moved in with my mum, partially so I could manage to maintain this routine.

In March 2019, I moved back to Wellington and found a job as a contractor with no minimum hours, doing stressful work with minimal support. I earned enough to pay my rent and bills, but not knowing when that would change was a big stress.

In June 2019, I told my doctor I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out again and that I hadn’t resolved any of the issues that came up last year. I again asked for counselling support and he gave me the same list I received the year earlier. I told a friend I was going to try one of these services and he told me that was where he went, but they were about to close down.

In August 2019 I broke my arm, which meant I couldn’t continue my exercise routine. This made me very concerned about the health issues that sprang up the year earlier and I felt both my physical and mental health slip from my control. My job got more stressful, both as a result of the broken arm and changes in management.

At the end of September I quit my job. I hoped this would help but it was too late and I fell into a massive mental health crisis. My friends had to chaperone me 24/7 as I was suicidal. They spent several hours on the phone to the mental health crisis line and I was given an appointment the next day. There they started arranging appointments in the crisis system for me, but before they came around I was hospitalised and transferred to a respite centre.

This was the first time I had managed to get any institutional support with my mental health and it only happened because I was in danger of dying. I had reached the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

The month after I left respite is somewhat of a blur. I had mental health workers calling me daily making sure I was alive. I saw a psychiatrist in the crisis team semi-regularly, but the visits felt predominantly administrative.

Eventually I was told I was being transferred to the community mental health team for ongoing treatment. This transfer process was messy and involved a friend spending an hour on the phone trying to work out what was happening, until a transfer meeting was arranged.

At the transfer meeting I was asked what I wanted from the community. I said, “I want to change my medication.” They told me my GP could deal with that. I said, “I want counselling.” they said that wasn’t a service they provided. Eventually I said, “I don’t know what I need. I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for a decade and if I knew what it would take to fix it I would already be doing it.”

They booked me an initial assessment with two mental health nurses. There I talked about what had been happening over the last year and what brought me there. When I brought up the stressful job I had just left, they empathised because they knew what it was like. They told me how they were understaffed and had had several positions vacant for a long time, which was making providing support much more challenging. I spent a significant proportion of that meeting comforting them about their own terrible work situation.

At the end of the assessment they told me they were equipped to deal with only the 2% most serious mental health cases, and I didn’t fit that criteria. They said I needed long-term counselling and they didn’t offer that, so there was nothing they could do for me. I was released from the mental health system altogether and left the meeting once again considering suicide.

I had been booted out from the ambulance, and all it had done was driven me back up to the top of the cliff.

At the doctor’s office I started seeing a mental health nurse who was going to try to help find me some longer-term support. I also finally changed medication, which I had been asking for for over a year, after I told them I was going to stop taking my current one and it was their choice whether or not they would give me a new one.

Since I was now on the benefit I became eligible for counselling from the local PHO. In December my GP put a request through. It took five months and several follow-ups before I got a call from a counsellor, by which time we were in lockdown. I was contacted by a counsellor who offered me phone counselling sessions, which I was not comfortable doing with someone I hadn’t met. She said to get in touch with her when lockdown ended – she would send me her contact information to do so. She never did.

After lockdown I had to follow up again with the PHO and ended up being given six sessions with a counsellor. I am now halfway through these and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Every time I meet with a new person I have to spend an hour going over my mental health history and trauma. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve done this in the last couple of years.

People talk about how much trust and bravery this takes, but it’s even harder when you know you will probably never see this person again. I’m not sure what I’ll do next time my mental health seriously deteriorates. I’m sick of meeting new people and I won’t go back to the places that have already turned me away – and there are not many options left.

Every time I see that list of places where you can ask for help I feel like it’s my fault because obviously I haven’t asked hard enough. The helplines are OK at offering support in that moment but they do not help past that. We need a better strategy than giving sick people a piece of paper with a list of numbers on it and let them experience rejection after rejection until they give up.

If I was given adequate support earlier on, I would never have reached the point where I had to be hospitalised. If I was given adequate support now, I’d be less likely to end up back in that position again. Right now it feels like it’s an inevitability.

Need to talk?

  • Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
  • Lifeline 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE).
  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat.
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666.
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Depression and Anxiety Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202
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